In the living room of the house I grew up in sits a heavy Arab chest, large enough to comfortably fit myself and a friend if we were so inclined to fold ourselves up (contortionist style) inside. A few feet away a large and ornate metal Arab coffee pot resides, passed down to my father from my grandmother. My dad was raised in Saudi Arabia, in a company town called Dhahran, where his father worked for an oil business called Aramco. If you know anything about rentier states, or the Middle East in general, you’ve probably heard of Aramco — the company is no longer in business, but the legacy that it left on the region is momentous.
When I signed up for a class this fall, Migrants in the Global City, that traveled to Doha and Amsterdam to study the affect that migrants had on the political and architectural design of international cities, I didn’t think much about traveling to the Middle East. My father’s stories of his childhood were so full of mystical tales of camels and Bedouin Arabs with traveling camps, that it was impossible for me (growing up in balmy Northern California), to conceptualize such a life. My upcoming travels to Qatar had nothing to do (in my mind) with my father’s childhood.
But the world I woke up to the morning after we arrived nearly matched my childhood visions of my father’s life. The stone streets below were dusted in pink light and the white-washed walls of the stone souk rose around it, casting grateful shadows in the morning heat. Impeccably dressed men in long white thobes and women in black abayas milled about, drinking coffee, shopping, and generally casting the teva-clad, poorly dressed tourists that also walked the streets, to shame.
The gulf / MENA (middle east, north Africa) region is home to some of the most ancient history in the world, but the entire history of Qatar spans only about 50 years. The “ancient” souk we were staying in was built in the early 2000s, meant to replicate an old Arab market. Qatar, it seems, is trying to recreate its national identity through tasteful urban renovation, newly erected national museums, and promulgation of a strictly Qatari ethos.
Regardless of my personal feelings about authoritarian states (even the benevolent ones), our trip was eye-opening, sweaty, stunning, and tantalizing! I am certain I will be back, I think I might have found my calling as a dune basher (someone who whips land cruisers over sand dunes as fast as they can), so if my post-grad plans don’t work out, Qatar it is! KIDDING!!! (sort of)